Three quarters (73 per cent) of the public oppose plans to lower the age of consent in Northern Ireland, a new poll shows.
The survey was conducted at the weekend by polling company, ComRes, on behalf of The Christian Institute.
The Northern Ireland Office is proposing to lower the age of consent from 17 to 16 in the province.
Last month Assembly Members approved a committee report which recommended keeping the law unchanged.
Opposition to the planned reduction is consistent across both religious communities. 80 per cent of Protestants and 72 per cent of Roman Catholics are against the move.
A majority of the public (58 per cent) believe that lowering the age of consent to 16 is likely to increase the number of under-16s with sexually transmitted infections. The rate of STIs among under-16s is 2.5 times higher in England and Wales, where the age of consent is 16, compared to Northern Ireland.
A representative of the Girls’ Brigade said: “As the largest youth organisation in the Province, the Girls’ Brigade is strongly opposed to any reduction of the age of consent. Modern society places enough pressure on 16 year old girls – they should not be deprived of a key legal protection against predatory advances.”
Giving a personal comment on the poll, George McClelland, National Director of The Boys’ Brigade, Northern Ireland District, said: “The Boys’ Brigade being a Christian organisation is concerned with the spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing of all our young people and as such any lowering of the age of consent can only create unnecessary problems and pressures for individuals and the moral good of society.”
Dr Richard Barr, Chief Executive of Love for Life (a sex education group), said: “As a medical professional who directs a relationships and sexuality education project in Northern Ireland schools, I am concerned that the proposals to lower the age of consent to 16 will send out the wrong message to young people.
“Already, through our work, we find there is very significant pressure from media and peers on children and young people to engage in early sexual intercourse. In addressing this issue the priority must always be the protection of children.
“This must be clearly communicated and demonstrated through legislation, policy and procedures. I fear that lowering the age of consent will not strengthen child protection”
Ald Jim Wells, DUP MLA for South Down, said: “This confirms that the normal man in the street does not want the age of consent to be lowered. If the Government presses ahead in opposition to public concerns, then many more teenagers will be exposed to the legal, but potentially predatory, advances of adults”
Cllr Danny Kennedy, Ulster Unionist MLA for Newry and Armagh, said: “The opinion poll findings confirm the views of locally elected politicians that the people of Northern Ireland strongly oppose any lowering of the age of consent here. The age of consent exists to protect our young people from exploitation, and that protection must not be weakened.”
Note:ComRes interviewed 500 Northern Irish adults by telephone between 19 and 29 March 2008. Data were weighted to be representative demographically of all Northern Irish adults. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables available at www.comres.co.uk